Not socialising your pet is the number one reason for dogs being abandoned in shelters. Here’s how to socialise your pet and give him the required skill set to live harmoniously in this world.
Charlie was a two-year-old Labrador Retriever, who was well-behaved and friendly. He was the apple of the eye of his family and always led a sheltered life. He used the huge backyard in his home, as his personal bathroom and playground since childhood. When Charlie’s master got transferred to another city, they were forced to live an apartment. From being accustomed to relieving himself in an open yard, he was taken for walks on leash on a very crowded street filled with people and different noises. Charlie was not used to all this commotion, so he started withdrawing. He used to cringe every time the pet parent used to leash him to take him outside.
One day, while he was on a walk, a ‘scary-looking’ stranger with an umbrella in his hand, approached Charlie and his pet parent. As the man came closer, Charlie withdrew but the stranger did not back – he petted his head instead. The scared dog looked at this gesture as a threat and bit him. The pet parent was shocked by the sudden behaviour; Charlie did not know how to react either. They thought it was isolated incident, but within few months, neighbour, watchman, milkman and pet parent himself had become victims to the dog’s bites. This got him a one-way ticket to the shelter, where he passed away in a few weeks due to mental trauma.
This catastrophe could have been prevented, had Charlie been socialised from an early age. He was brought up in a very constricted environment, and was not exposed to outsiders, noise, chaos, other pets or kids. He never gained the skill set that is required for any dog to be sociable.
What is socialisation?
“Socialisation is the process of installing a positive world view in puppies, by exposing them to a variety of people, places and things. Ensuring that he has good experiences in different environments is essential. The most important period, to socialise your pet is as young as four weeks through 12 to 14 weeks of age. However, it is a continual process – so if your pet hasn’t had exposure as a pup, remedial socialisation later in its life, can repair some of the damage done by lack of early socialisation. Chances are high that the dog will be somewhat significantly neophobic (fearful of new things) throughout his life, if early intervention isn’t done, in cases where the animal hasn’t gotten sufficient exposure,” says Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CDBC.
In simple words, socialisation is the association of two different stimuli and the reaction when interacted with. Many dog behavioural scientists have identified that puppies’ social development period is from 4 to 14 weeks of age. If they are exposed to different environments, living situations, people, dogs, sounds and objects within this time period, he will grow up to be a happy, confident and social adult dog, who believes the world is a safe place, which he loves living in.
If the exposure is not done within this time frame, they could grow up to be under-socialised or orneophobic – fearful dogs who are afraid of their own shadow. This could result in fear-related aggression as adults – Charlie’s case (as mentioned above) is an example of this. While, under or non-exposure to different stimulus is one thing, over exposure to stimulus can also have a negative impact.
The right ways
“Socialisation does not mean flooding the puppy with new experiences all at once. It is a gradual, positive process of exposure that encourages confident behaviour in the pup,” explains Dr Ian Dunbar, a veterinarian, animal behaviourist, author and public speaker. He’s also the creator of the world’s first off-leash puppy classes and founder of the APDT (The Association of Professional Dog Trainers).
Meeting new people: The puppy must meet at least 100 people of different ages, personalities, height, size and faces. By the time he is eight weeks old, make him mingle with another 100 people, and 100 more by the time the social development windows closes at 14 weeks of age.
Throw as many parties as you can – ‘meet my new pup parties’, kids birthday parties, office get-togethers, weekend interactions and so on. The little one has to be handled, passed around, carried and petted by as many people as possible, but monitor his safety carefully.
You have to make the pup feel that people are fun beings to play with and that they don’t mean harm. You could request your friends to give him his favourite special treat (in small quantities only) when he is being handled or played with. After few of these parties, he will start seeking out people he can be around.
Introducing new stimulus: Make a socialisation plan for the puppy. Each day introduce a new stimulus – be it another animal, a new child or the common area in the apartment complex. The number one rule to remember is it has to be an enjoyable experience, so shower praises and special treats (in moderation) to reward their confidence and curiosity. If they scrounge or try to hide behind you or jump on you to be picked up, resist this behaviour. By trying to comfort him, you will only be encouraging and rewarding this nervous behaviour. Instead, be neutral and move away from the situation, which is eliciting a fearful response. Once the puppy calms down, praise the puppy.
Making it a life-long process: A pet parent’s tendency is to become over-enthusiastic and push the puppy too hard, if he behaves well or listens – ensure this doesn’t occur, from day one of training. Always end on a positive note. Remember, socialising is a long-term effort, so even when your puppy becomes a teenager or an adult, they will still need ongoing socialising from time to time, to new as well as old stimulus and environments. Puppies who are socialised well from the beginning turn out to be adult dogs who are well behaved and adjusted to our human world.
(Rohini Sankar has done Diploma in Canine Behavior Counselling, Therapy and Training from The Association of Companion Animal Behavior Counselors (ACABC), USA; she has more than nine years of professional experience as a canine behaviour counsellor, trainer and therapist.)